Smoking is a guilty pleasure with dire consequences, and vaping has been long-held as a healthier alternative. But with its uptake rising among youth, the risks must be considered.
Whether it’s the chronic smoker friend, the stressed parent sneaking in cigarette breaks, or even the classic smokes-after-a-few-drinks friend, they are all aware of one shared, crucial fact—smoking is bad for you. Many of us do not know exactly why smoking is bad for us. We all know it’s something to do with lungs or cancer or maybe that infamous chemical nicotine, but the repeated messages from doctors, parents, and the grotesque images on some cig packages have made their mark.
Nicotine is creating terrible teenagers
The effects of smoking are not experienced equally, and it is an especially harmful act for its less risk-averse users—teenagers. Nicotine can cause serious harm to the developing adolescent brain and particularly impacts the parts of the brain that control attention, learning, mood, and impulse control.
In other words, attributes that many teenagers already struggle with. For example, Deloitte’s 2023 Gen Z and Millennial Survey found that nearly half of Gen-Zers (46%) said that they feel stressed or anxious all or most of the time, and this survey was only taking into account their experience at work.
From the sidelines, in steps a new trend—vaping—a mirage solution to all of cigarettes’ ills. These e-cigarette devices first gained popularity as an aid to those attempting to quit smoking. They were seen as less harmful, but only when used for their intended purpose by existing smokers. Young non-smokers who pick up vapes are ingesting nicotine that only doubles their troubles.
Both the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) emphasize that e-cigarettes are unsafe for kids, teens, and young adults, as the adolescent brain does not finish developing until the age of 25. The NHS particularly warns against non-smokers engaging in vaping, seeing it both as a gateway to smoking and a device that contains other harmful substances besides nicotine. However, much of this advice is ignored altogether.
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A recent survey of schools in Northern England revealed that the number of teenagers regularly vaping has jumped to one in seven. Meanwhile, some countries have taken drastic measures to address the ‘adolescent vaping epidemic’, such as Australia’s ban on all vape sales except for those with a prescription. Scotland is looking to follow suit in response to the rising rates of youth vaping.
Vaping appeals to the social-media-influenced, convenience-first, cost-saving Gen Z
While countries look to respond to the growing number of young people vaping, regulation is proving too slow.
Gen-Zers on social media and out in the wild are vaping more and more. And the most successful vaping brands, such as the Chinese-owned Elf Bar, have captured a whole generation through their viral social media campaigns and support by top influencers with billions of views. Other Big Tobacco companies, such as British American Tobacco, also have their own vaping devices sold under the banner of “reduced-risk products.”
Beyond the toting of vapes by influencers, vapes also appeal to young people because of their ease of use, sweet flavours, and relatively low cost in comparison to cigarettes. Vaping is a low-stakes entry point into the world of smoking and one with plenty of peer pressure surrounding it. One study by Action on Smoking and Health (ASH), a UK-based public health charity, found that more than half of previously non-smoking young people started vaping “just to give it a try.” But this fad soon becomes an addiction.
The future of vaping
There is now increased attention on the harms of vaping. Even previous TikTok vaping influencers have opened up about their addictions, while others have started speaking about the environmental harm of single-use vapes, and governments are being pushed by schools and healthcare providers to address the growing issue of underage vaping.
Despite the current public discussions around the dangers of vaping, it is here to stay. The rapid uptake may plateau, but Gen Z in many countries will become the vaping generation regardless of perceptions of its un-coolness. Even with the worry of parents and states, vaping is not going anywhere fast and has created a new generation of nicotine users.